• Dr. Michael Johnson

    Psychologist, Specialist in Problematic Sexual Behavior

  • Dr. Michael Johnson

    Specializing in Sex Addiction Treatment in Austin, TX

Ten Steps to Forgiveness

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The programs of the recovery groups and many therapists speak of the value of forgiveness - forgiveness of self and others and forgiveness by others. Often recovering addicts have little experience forgiving or much guidance in the process. This then is a guide in the process of forgiveness. Books stores and the internet are also filled with information about forgiveness

Addicts are warned of the dangers of anger, isolation, entitlement, and resentment in recovery. They may precipitate slips and relapses. Anger, isolation, entitlement, and resentment are also more difficult to overcome when we remain in non-forgiveness when we have been wronged or hurt.

Forgiveness is not simple or easy. Like recovery, it is a process. Many people mouth superficial forgiveness. This is really a wish to forgive, a wish to be done with the pain, or a wish to act as the superficial forgiver believes she or he should act. But this quick and easy forgiveness is pseudo-forgiveness. Like most quick and easy solutions, pseudo-forgiveness does not stand the test of time.

What Forgiveness Is: We can deal with anger in three ways; denial, expression, and forgiveness. Denial buries a secret resentment in the heart. Expression of anger is appropriate initially after a hurt. But ultimately forgiveness must follow else resentment, grudges, and hatred develop. Forgiveness is the release of anger and resentment, not harboring of anger and resentment. To forgive is to give up resentment and the desire for vengeance. Forgiveness is a set of actions that produce changes in your own feeling, thinking, and behavior. Thus, the goal of forgiveness is to let go of a hurt and move. Forgiveness does not just happen. It flows from a decision. Forgiveness is not for the offender. It is for the one who has been harmed.

What Forgiveness Is Not:
People often confuse forgiveness with other things.
Forgiving is not accepting the offending behavior.
Forgiving is not forgetting that you were wounded by another's actions.
Forgiving is not pardoning, excusing, or condoning. The wrong is not denied, dismissed, minimized, or justified.
Forgiving is not reconciling. You may forgive and yet choose not to continue a relationship with the offender.
Forgiveness is not weakness. You do not become a doormat or oblivious to cruelty when you forgive.

What Unforgiveness Is: In unforgiveness you replay the offense against you and imagine your revenge again and again. In so doing you bring up negative and destructive emotions for yourself. Holding a grudge takes mental, emotional, and physical energy. It makes you obsessive, angry, and depressed. Holding on to anger is associated with mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical problems. Part of deciding to forgive is a recognition of the suffering produced when hostile and hateful thoughts occupy your mind. Remaining in unforgiveness saps your energy and may even make you ill. You are hurt by your non-forgiveness. You suffer. Let that knowledge motivate you to forgive and let go. As Malachy McCourt said, "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

When you remain in unforgiveness, nursing resentment, you allow another person, your offender, control over your well-being. You continue as a helpless victim of their misdeeds. This too may motivate you to let go, forgive, and go on.

Harboring resentment inevitably infects other relationships and activities in your life. Just as a sour mood impacts others, a persistent grudge impacts those you love and value in your life.

If you find yourself thinking, "I wouldn't give him or her the satisfaction or forgiving" remember this is about your satisfaction. That is the question. Would you give yourself the satisfaction of forgiving?

The Benefits of Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a gift that you give to yourself and your family. Forgiveness decreases anger, depression, and anxiety. Forgiveness increases self-esteem, self-control, and emotional stability, and it strengthens relationships. Forgiveness promotes peace and serenity in your life.

"But, but, but, but, what about what they did???": When we have been harmed we cry out for apology, repentance, and reparation. We want to know why the offender did what they did. And it is nice when we get an apology or can understand the other's motivation. It makes forgiving easier because it relieves part of the resentment. But waiting for the other to "get it" still leaves you in the place of victimhood. The fact is you don't need to know why the other acted as they to forgive. You don't need an apology or reparations either. Forgiveness is something you do and you do it for yourself. It is not something that is earned by the offender's contrition or atonement. As you wait for an apology or explanation, you remain imprisoned by your offender.

Preparing to forgive: You must recognize you have been hurt rather than minimizing or denying. We often dismiss the reality that we've been hurt in order to appear tough, because we don't know how to handle the reality of dealing with harm in a relationship, or because we so fear the loss of the relationship that we distort reality. Stop that. Honor your experience - the offense really happened. Allow your hurt to be validated by someone you trust; your therapist, a good friend, your partner, your sponsor, or other friend in recovery. Letting yourself experience empathy and compassion for your hurt helps you to heal and helps you prepare to forgive.

It may be that you are permanently and adversely changed by the injury. If so, vengeance and resentment will not change that. It only further burdens you. Getting clear about the impact of the injury and accepting the consequences is necessary before you can forgive. Forgiving may not reverse all the effects of the offense. It will free you from the anger and resentment. This involves recognizing that this is not a "just world", it is just the world.

Decision to Forgive: The crucial point comes when you make a conscious and deliberate decision to forgive. Sometimes this comes about due to a change of heart on your part, conversion to a new or revised way of thinking or set of values, or perhaps the insight that your old resolution strategies are not working for you. The decision requires that you are willing to commit to do the work of forgiving the offender.

The Work: There are several elements involved in the work of forgiving.
Deliberately shift your frame of reference to the perspective of the offender. Imagine what the context of the offense really looked like to them. When you accomplish this, you will find that you have empathy for the offender. The fact is that people hurt other people because they have been hurt themselves. It doesn't invalidate your hurt to know that your offender was acting out of his or her own pain. Empathy will lead you to compassion toward the offender.

Challenge the "shoulds" in your thinking Forgiveness is easier when you give up the irrational beliefs that fuel your frustration, anger, and hostility. Many of us believe and expect that other people will always act in the way we want. But others will not always act in your best interest. So, be mindful of the "shoulds" in your thinking and speaking such as:
She shouldn't have done this to me.
They shouldn't act that way.
My husband should have known better.
My wife should be more attentive to me.
I've worked hard and I should have been rewarded.

Whenever you find the word "should" in your thinking and talking, challenge yourself. Remind yourself that it is unreasonable to expect that people will always act decently and respectfully toward you. Everyone is fallible and capable of making mistakes or harming others.
Remember how you have hurt others in your life. Really let yourself remember your own misdeeds. It may help you flip the process and imagine your actions from your victims' points of view. Realization of the impact of your actions on others helps you to know that you have needed others' forgiveness in the past. And this helps you to release the arrogance and self-righteousness inherent in resentment and to accept your faulted humanness. Forgiveness is a human experience. As you recognize that you too are imperfect and have harmed others, you can allow yourself the insight that you are also not alone. Offending and forgiving are part of the unifying human experience. Giving and needing forgiveness are essential parts of life. Rejoice at the reunion.

When you feel really ready, write a letter to the offending person. There is no need to mail it. Express fully, clearly, and honestly how you feel and why that person's act hurt you and made you angry. Acknowledge what you gained from the relationship the person. Own your part. Look honestly at yourself to see if you too have some responsibility in the hurt such as not complaining at the time, staying in the relationship, or minimizing your own feelings. This too is a step away from victimhood. Allow yourself to express all your feelings fully. Do not focus only on the hurts. Conclude with the bold declaration of forgiveness without conditions. Read the letter out loud. When you are completely sure that you mean every word and have left nothing out you are ready to symbolically end the resentment.

Different people find that different symbolic expressions of forgiveness are satisfying to them. Some bury the letter in a their yards, a park, or a cemetery. Others burn the letter in the fireplace or an open fire. Others still throw the letter into the sea or a rushing river. Visualize the person you are forgiving being blessed by your forgiveness and, as a result, being freed from continuing the behavior that hurt you. See yourself freed from the anger and resentment you have carried. This is a powerful symbolic exercise, which many people find to be extremely therapeutic. Invent a ceremony that satisfies you.

The process of forgiveness leads you to acceptance, absorption, and bearing of the pain rather than battling with the pain. That battle to control the uncontrollable creates suffering. The pain alone is much easier to bear. Acceptance creates serenity and peace. As you work through this process, you may have the realization that you have a new purpose in life because of the injury. You will almost surely be aware of decreased negative emotion and increased positive emotion.

When you have liberated yourself from the painful links to the offense and released the anger and resentment, feel yourself growing lighter and more joyous. Now you are free to move on with your life without that bitter burden. Do not look back in anger.

And if the resentment returns, repeat the process. You change the oil in your car, mow your lawn, wash your clothes, and repeat a bizillion other things. Life is partly the repetition of valued processes. Why not forgiveness?

Start Small: Start with small forgivings - practice with small hurts. Many of us have little experience with deliberate forgiveness. You would not begin jogging by running a marathon. Why begin a practice of forgiving with your rapist, molester, abusive parents, or betraying spouse? Learn the process and experience of forgiving. Work your way up to the big stuff. Like the old joke says, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice."

To become a generous forgiver of major pains, practice forgiveness on small hurts. Forgive immediately the small slights inflicted by strangers - a rude clerk, a driver who cut you off, a doctor who keeps you waiting and waiting, etc. Use those experiences as practice to prepare you for the tougher task of forgiving major hurts. If it gets tough, get help. Talk, read, learn, and return to the process.

Make a practice of forgiving: Make forgiving a practice in your life. Forgive as soon as you realize you have been injured. You will be freer, more positive, healthier, and have more energy to give to living rather than resenting. Forgive when you feel hurt or insulted by someone's comment. Forgive when others disappoint or injure you. Doing so insures that small irritations do not transform into deep resentments or intense hatred. Forgive it all. It is all forgivable. Remember this one vital fact: forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.








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